Profile of a Wreck Diver

Mark Powell is one of the UK’s best known technical diving instructors. He has been involved in diving since the mid 1980s, has been teaching since 1993, and holds the rank of technical instructor-trainer for TDI.

Mark’s true passion is wreck diving and it is his exploration of deeper wrecks that led him into technical diving. Mark has served on the National Executive of the SAA, as well as being its technical diving advisor. He currently represents TDI/SDI at British Safety Diving group meetings and he is also a member of the BSI committees defining standards for diver training and diving equipment.

He also writes a monthly column in Sports Diver, which covers all aspects of technical diving. Mark is the author of the best-selling book Deco for Divers, which allows the average diver to fully understand the principles behind this fascinating and critical aspect of diving.

From left to right: Mark Powell and Stephen Phillips

When did you start diving and how soon after that did you make your first wreck dive?
I started diving in 1988 while I was studying at Sussex University. I had done a try-dive when I was 10 and was hooked from that point but, at that time, you couldn’t learn to dive until you were 18. That was a long eight years.

When I went to university, I chose Sussex partly because it was on the coast and the first thing I did was join the university diving club. The club ran a trip to Cornwall every Easter where we did our open water training dives. My fifth dive during that trip was my first wreck dive and it was on the wreck of a four
masted barque called the Bay of Panama. The ship had run aground in 1891 and the wreckage was in 9m (30ft) of water. Although it was well broken up, I was amazed at how much wreckage was left and how much marine life there was on the wreck.

What was it that appealed to you about ship wrecks?
Every wreck is different. Each wreck has its own history and personality and the marine life on the wreck changes each time you dive it, so that you can dive the same wreck multiple times but see something different on every dive. Also, I have a huge interest in history and in particular naval history. There are a number of maritime museums but diving a wreck is like exploring a real life museum.

I have dived on HMS Audacious, one of the first dreadnaught class battleships, which played a key part in the build up to the First World War. I have also dived on HMS Hermes, the world’s first custom-built aircraft carrier, as well as HMS M2, a submarine aircraft carrier. Each of these represents a unique part of history and by diving them I can get closer to them than in any museum.

Based on what you just said and living where you do –  you have proximity to many WW1 WWII casualties – are ships sunk in conflict your favorite type of wreck?
Absolutely, along the coast of the UK we have a huge range of wrecks including sailing ships, early steam powered ships, U-boats, First and Second World War wrecks as well as more modern cargo ships. My favorite wrecks are definitely those from the First and Second World War. The history attached to each wreck and the story behind the sinking adds so much more to each dive. I consider each dive on one of these wrecks to be paying our respects to the sailors who died during their service.

Do you have a top-10 of wrecks?
My top 10 wrecks vary depends on what I have dived recently. Some of my favorite wrecks or areas include:

  • Scapa Flow – At the end of the First World War the captured German High Seas Fleet was scuttled by the crews rather than surrendering their ships to the allies.
  • HMS Hermes – The world’s first custom built aircraft carrier. There are very few diveable aircraft carriers in the world but to dive the first is unique. It was sunk off Sri Lanka during WWII by the Japanese.
  • British Sergeant – This tanker was sunk at the same time as HMS Hermes. I have a special interest in this wreck, as I was the first to discover it during our first HMS Hermes expedition.
  • Le Polynesian – This French liner in Malta is a fantastic dive. It is virtually intact and the warm water and clear visibility make it an incredible dive.
  • SS Salsette – A P&O liner off the south coast of the UK. This wreck is almost intact and upright. I have dived it many times over the years and I still get a huge buzz of excitement every time I swim along the intact decks of this beautiful liner.
  • Malin Head – The wrecks of Malin are a wreck divers dream. HMS Audacious was one of the original Dreadnaught battleships, The Empire Heritage was a Second World War wreck, which was carrying a cargo of tanks which are now scattered around the wreck like children’s toys.
  • SS Maine – Although there is nothing particularly historical about this steam cargo ship, I love the open nature of the wreck and the fact that you can explore every inch of her.
  • SS Flying Enterprise – The Flying Enterprise was hit by a storm in 1952 and suffered a severe crack across the weather deck. The attempts to tow her back to port were covered extensively in the media in one of the first real time news stories. Despite this she sank in 80m of water where she makes a fantastic dive.
  • SS Moldavia – Another P&O liner laying 24 miles out into the English Channel.
  • HMS M2 – The M2, along with the M1 and M3, were designed as submarine battleships with 12-inch guns on their deck. After the sinking of her sister ship M1 and the Treaty of Washington, where the size of submarine guns was limited, she was converted to carry a sea plane. The M2 was lost in 1932 during a training exercise and went down with all hands on board. She makes a unique and historic dive and in good visibility can be a stunning dive.
  • HMS Southwold – This British Destroyer was sunk during the siege of Malta where it was involved in escorting convoys of ships trying to bring supplies to the besieged population of Malta. Although split into two parts, each part is almost intact and you can still imagine the sailors on board frantically trying to keep the ship afloat and defend the supply ships from attack.

What’s on your To-Do list?
Truk and Bikini are still on the To-Do list but my main interest is with discovering new and unknown wrecks. There are a couple of wrecks I have found which are still unidentified. Putting a name to those wrecks would be a great satisfaction.

Tell us a little about the expeditions you stage to dive overseas. What is the real challenge of staging this type of trip?
I regularly run trips to some of the most significant wreck diving locations. In the last couple of years, I have starting running trips to Sri Lanka to dive HMS Hermes. Until 2009, Sri Lanka was in the grip of a violent civil war, and so the wreck had been off limits. Only in the last few years has it become accessible to divers. Arranging a trip to locations like this is difficult, especially when you are doing technical diving. Ensuring that all the required cylinders, oxygen, helium, sofnolime and other equipment can be flown out or sourced locally is a huge logistical challenge. It helps if you can find a reliable local operator. This is also important from a safety point of view. I insist that all the relevant safety precautions are
in place and this is much easier when using a reliable operator.

In the UK and the US, we are lucky to have very reliable coastguard services and hyperbaric chambers but when travelling abroad this is not always the case. Planning what to do in the case of a DCI or any other incident is always a big challenge for these types of dives. Unfortunately, paperwork and administration is always a challenge, as each country always has its own rules and regulations.

Do you use special kit for wreck diving or is your kit always the same regardless?
I try and keep my kit as similar as possible at all times. For open circuit diving, I use a standard Hogarthian type setup with single piece harness and wing. When diving CCR, I usually use a Vision Rebreather (APD Inspiration). The only changes I make for wreck diving are that I carry additional torches (flashlights) when going inside a wreck and carry a special wreck reel rather than a standard DSMB reel.

What skills are essential for wreck diving and is cold water harder than warm?
The key skill for wreck diving (and all other diving) is buoyancy control. Sharp edges and silt mean that whether you are inside or outside a wreck, it is essential that you can control your buoyancy and keep off the bottom.
Equally important when you are inside the wreck is maintaining your distance between the floor and roof of any compartments. Unless your buoyancy and trim are under control, you will end up kicking up the silt and being unable to do tie offs within the wreck. Line laying is also an essential skill for wreck penetration, as it is the only guaranteed way to find your way out in a silt out.

Cold water adds to the challenge, as cold hands loose dexterity and feeling. This can make it harder to lay line and increases the amount of equipment we need to take on any dive.

Do you have any special remedies for sea-sickness?
Sit under a tree. I used to get sea sick but in recent years I think I have
built up my tolerance to it. So my remedy is to do more wreck diving.

What’s your favorite wreck diving story?
My favorite story involves a diver who was doing a penetration dive on the Zenobia in Cyprus. He had led his team into the engine room and then took several minutes to decide where to do the next tie off. It was as if he was thinking in slow motion. After the dive he thought he had only looked around
for a few seconds and didn’t realize that it had in fact been a few minutes until we told him. He was at 40m (120ft) at the time, and was using air as backgas. This was the best illustration I have seen of narcosis slowing down your thought process and judgment. The task loading of navigation and line laying increased the effects of the narcosis and convinced me that wreck penetration can add 10m (30ft) to your level of narcosis.

Any tips for new divers who are interested in wrecks?
One of the best ways to improve your enjoyment of wreck diving is to learn a little bit about the structure of wrecks. One of the main reasons people don’t enjoy wreck dives is because they don’t know what they are looking at, so it all looks like a jumble of metal. Once you start to understand the layout and structure of ships then you can start to identify the various bits of the wreck you are looking at. This makes the dive much more interesting and also helps you to be able to navigate the wreck. A good Wreck or Advanced Wreck instructor will be able to give you the knowledge and enthusiasm for wrecks that will help you get the most from any wreck dive.

Thank you, Mark.

My pleasure, thank you and good diving!

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